Alex Rios had just taken a pitch for a ball when pinch runner Terrance Gore broke for third base. Gore arrived ahead of the throw but was ruled out after a replay review.
As the seventh inning ended Monday, the Royals seemingly had lost their best opportunity to cut into a four-run deficit.
“I didn’t think so,” Rios said. “We had more chances.”
Yes, they did, and Rios lit the fuse for a remarkable eighth-inning rally that reversed the game’s fortune and carried the Royals to a 9-6 victory in Game 4 of the American League Division Series.
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Rios, the ninth-place hitter back at the plate to open the eighth after Gore’s caught-stealing call, delivered the first of five consecutive singles that produced two runs and changed the game.
Previous plate appearances made Rios an unlikely jump-starting source.
Rios had seen eight pitches in his two full and third abbreviated plate appearances. He had swung and missed at five of them, fouled off two and taken one for a ball. Fastballs, breaking balls — Rios couldn’t make contact with anything off Astros starter Lance McCullers.
This wasn’t simply a Monday problem. Rios entered the game with one hit in eight at-bats in the series. He had hit better in the second half of the season with a .267 batting average after the All-Star break than the first (.238), but Rios had cooled in the postseason.
But then he stepped up in the eighth, and Rios didn’t change his approach against reliever Will Harris.
“I wanted to be aggressive in the strike zone,” Rios said. “If you have a pitch you can handle, you should go for it. I got a pitch I liked.”
A 91-mph fastball that caught too much of the plate. Rios whacked it into left field. The Royals were trailing 6-2 at the time, and this was only their third hit of the game.
But if there was ever a moment to trust the worn baseball axiom — hitting is contagious — it was now.
Alcides Escobar, Ben Zobrist, Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer followed with singles, and the score was 6-4 with nobody out and the bases loaded.
“After I got on, the boys started getting hits,” Rios said. “Something was brewing.”
What impressed Astros manager A.J. Hinch was how the Royals approached the plate appearances, starting with Rios.
“They never tried to come out of their shoes and try to change the score with one swing,” Hinch said. “So credit to them for their approach. Obviously, to get that many bases runners in a row, that’s good team offense.”
Rios scored the inning’s first run, and by the time he reached the dugout he felt the energy, even though the Royals had just started on the comeback trail.
“Everybody was excited,” Rios said. “We were fired up, and everyone believed it was happening.”
This is Rios’ first season with the team, but he watched the Royals’ march to the 2014 World Series begin with an improbable comeback victory over the Oakland A’s in the Wild Card Game. He started picking up on that chatter during the inning.
“As this started to happen, people were talking about that,” Rios said. “It brought memories back from that game.”
The difference between the games: last season, the Royals rallied from four runs down in the eighth inning and won in extra frames. On Monday they scaled the opponent by the end of the inning, and it started with the Rios’ base hit.